By Peter Baker and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, September 16, 2007
When Army Gen. David H. Petraeus last week proposed withdrawing more than 20,000 U.S. troops from Iraq, some congressional Democrats nodded their heads and saw it as a positive, if insufficient, step forward. Some wanted to take credit. After all, they reasoned, the drawdown, the benchmarks report, even Petraeus's Capitol Hill testimony came about only because of Democratic pressure.
Within hours, that idea was shot down. When House Democratic leaders convened in the office of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) at 5:30 p.m. Monday, strategists concluded they were already getting credit for what was happening but that voters wanted much more. So Pelosi, according to aides at the meeting, insisted that Democrats coordinate their message and dictated what that message would be: The general's plan meant 10 more years of war, or even "endless war."
Either way, what seems increasingly clear is that Washington will remain locked in an endless war over Iraq -- at least until President Bush leaves office in 16 months. Following long-awaited congressional hearings, progress reports and presidential speeches, the prospect of a grand bipartisan resolution to the extended conflict in Iraq that some hoped September would bring appears more elusive than ever.
"The headline for the last week is that the war is pretty much going to be on a stay-the-course path and clearly is going to be passed on to the next president, and there isn't going to be an awful lot done in the Congress to change that," said Leon E. Panetta, a former Clinton White House chief of staff who served on the Iraq Study Group that tried to forge a bipartisan agreement last year.
With razor-thin majorities, advocates for changing course do not appear to have the capacity to muster veto-proof votes to impose their will on Bush. While many Republicans have grown dissatisfied with the war, not enough have signaled willingness to break with the president on the overarching policy. Where change advocates may be able to influence policy, at least for now, is more on the margins, such as legislating more resting time for troops between deployments.
Moreover, the political calendar works against any possible war accord between the parties. With presidential primaries barely three months off, Democratic candidates such as Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.) are competing to be more aggressive in confronting Bush and Republicans. Even if they could find a compromise that enough Republicans would accept, it is not clear that the candidates would agree to anything but a hard-line position given the antiwar fervor in the party base.
So any further changes in war policy before Jan. 20, 2009, seem likely to be up to Bush, who has signaled that he is starting to shift. The White House said the Petraeus drawdown marks the beginning of a "gradual change in mission," and Bush suggested in his speech that he hopes to bring more troops home next year beyond the troops sent earlier this year for the buildup.
In fact, although senior officials did not use the term "exit strategy," the outlines of one emerged from the various statements and speeches they made last week. Petraeus plans to begin redefining his mission in December from leading combat operations to partnering with Iraqi security units and eventually to supporting them. At least 21,700 troops, and perhaps more from the buildup, will be pulled out by July. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told reporters he hopes to bring the overall force, now at 168,000, down to 100,000 by the end of next year. And Petraeus told The Washington Post that he foresees "sustainable security" in Iraq by June 2009, a point at which the U.S. presence could be scaled back even more.
Although Petraeus did not define what that would mean for U.S. deployment, other senior officials have said the goal would be to get to a force of perhaps 50,000 once Iraq is secure enough for its own forces to take over. Whatever its precise size, that residual force would then remain for years, much as U.S. troops did in South Korea after the Korean War. Rather than be in the middle of sectarian warfare, the remainder force would engage only in counterterrorism, training, support and border protection. Leading Democrats have envisioned such a long-term smaller presence, as well.
But Bush did not address his extended plan that explicitly and made no commitment to do anything beyond the initial drawdown of forces sent for the buildup. And none of this goes far enough for leading Democrats, who want to pull out more troops, more rapidly. Still, White House aides expressed surprise that Democrats would not latch onto the concessions Bush has made. It is the first time the president has agreed to pull back any forces since last year's midterm elections overturned Republican control of Congress.
"For months and even years, we've heard this is a president who won't listen to alternative options, who won't listen to the idea of bringing troops home, who's so stubborn he won't do anything else," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino. "It's a little bit surprising that Democrats wouldn't want to take yes for an answer."
Peter Rodman, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who recently left a senior job at the Pentagon, said he was particularly surprised at how Democratic presidential candidates reacted to Bush because they have a vested interest should they win the White House. "The next president is going to inherit this," Rodman said. "The better condition Iraq is in, the better the situation will be" for the next president. "If I were Hillary or Obama, I would be rooting for the surge."
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), another presidential candidate, acknowledged that some Democrats suggested taking credit for the modest drawdown the administration is ordering. But he said the suggestions were quickly overruled. Democrats, he said, would contradict their own claim of credit when they pointed out that the withdrawals were dictated more by deployment schedules than by conditions in Iraq or political pressure at home.
"It was totally disingenuous," Biden said of colleagues who suggested claiming credit. "I think we made the right decisions. Both parties have been playing this game of not being honest with the American people. I think it would have made us look as bad as they are, the phonies that they're being."
The Senate will resume the Iraq debate tomorrow, and Democrats -- along with a growing number of moderate Republicans -- are determined to reach accord on measures that could change the course of the war, if not reverse it. A bipartisan group of moderate senators traveled to Iraq this weekend to assess the situation and to plot strategy on legislation that can win 60 votes and break a threatened Republican filibuster.
"We are going to have, number one, a reduction of forces, and number two, a change in mission, structuring it so we can have 60 votes in the United States Senate," Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) said by telephone from Baghdad yesterday.
One of their best opportunities to change policy, according to party strategists and White House aides, could be an amendment drafted by Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), a former Marine, to mandate that home leaves for troops last as long as their deployments.
The Pentagon now may keep units in Iraq as long as 15 months and send them back after 12 months of rest. Webb's measure could force the Bush administration to trim troop levels to comply with its requirements, and the White House opposes it. But it appears to be gaining momentum in the Senate, where it received 56 votes in July, just four shy of the 60 needed to break a filibuster.
Webb may have 60 this time with the return of Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) and some Republican converts. Brian C. Nick, chief of staff to Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), said she is looking at the proposal "very carefully" and has been influenced by a Marine helicopter pilot who told Bush that short stateside breaks are limiting training and wearing down families. "Nobody's in the same place they were a few years ago," Nick said.
If Webb's measure passes, it will be the first Iraq policy bill opposed by the White House to reach Bush's desk over a Republican filibuster. Still, it will not stop the war. In the end, analysts said, that will be up to Bush or his successor.
"It's very difficult to force a president, once you've given him power to go to war, to get him to change," said Lawrence Korb, a former Reagan Defense Department official now at the liberal Center for American Progress. "It's almost impossible for Congress to do that."
Staff writer Michael Abramowitz contributed to this report.